Joining the swelling ranks of published novelists to come out of our online writing courses is David Barbaree, who completed his course with us in April of this year (which is practically yesterday in the books world).
David novel, The Deposed, which he worked on extensively over his 6-month novel-writing course, blends historical fiction with murder mystery. Former emperor Nero, having been overthrown, blinded and left for dead, returns to Rome ten years after his departure under the care of a young man, Marcus. Set across two timelines, The Deposed unravels the political mystery while recounting Marcus and Nero’s experiences during their ten-year absence and their reasons for returning to the city they had left behind. Drawing inspiration from the “False Neros”, men who sprang up across the Empire claiming to be Nero after he fell from power, the book plays with the slippery nature of history, and explores the man who was loved by the people, despised the Senate, misunderstood, and then finally condemned, by history. The first in a trilogy, The Deposed sets the scene for a thrilling exploration of life in a time of political turmoil in the ancient world.
With publication just around the corner (well, Spring 2017), we caught up with David about his experiences working on his novel on the course.
When you started your Curtis Brown Creative course, how much of your novel had you already written?
I had around 30,000 words. For years, I’d written and re-written the opening chapters, trying to figure out what worked and basically teaching myself how to write. But my progressed had stalled. I thought a writing course might help me press on and finish the book.
How did the novel change during the course and how has the finished novel changed from your original idea?
I had the major elements in place before the course started – tone, structure, the storyline, etc. But the course helped me shape and improve those elements. It can be hard to look at your own work objectively. The course provided the chance to take a step back and ask: why am I doing that? Does it work?
What do you think was the main benefit of studying this course online as opposed to in-person?
Flexibility. I live in Toronto and I was working full time. There were local courses I looked at, but they didn’t offer everything the CBC does, with its focus on getting published and insight into the publishing industry.
How did you find working with your creative writing tutor, Chris Wakling, and with CBC’s Anna Davis?
Chris is a fantastic tutor: insightful, patient, dedicated. I will always remember a breakthrough I had during one of our one-on-one tutorials. My book is a historical thriller, with a simmering plot to bring down the Emperor. I was being too cute in the opening chapters, alluding to it in oblique ways, rather than making it obvious to the reader early on. Chris helped me see this and I realised that I had to work harder to hook and then keep the reader’s interest.
Anna was particularly helpful following the course. It was invaluable to have her as a resources for advice during the process of submitting to agents and then navigating the offers I received.
What drew you to write about Ancient Rome? And why Nero specifically?
I’ve always had an interest in ancient and medieval history. The idea for the story came when I was reading about the Byzantine Empire where, on more than one occasion, an Emperor was deposed and then shuffled off into obscurity. I had an idea for a book that follows a similarly deposed tyrant – but one who isn’t content to shuffle off into obscurity.
I wanted to go to an earlier period of history, where the record was less reliable and there was more room to maneouvre as a novelist. Nero was perfect because he is remembered as a bloodthirsty hedonist (check) and there were several ‘False Neros’ who sprang up after his fall. I thought these ‘False Neros’ would be a great wedge that I could use to force my story into the historical record.
Whether or not Nero actually was a bloodthirsty hedonist is a different question. There are some pretty terrible stories associated with him, but that’s true of most Emperors who were overthrown or succeeded by a different regime. I think it is impossible to know what Nero was like or if the stories about him are true. As a novelist, I saw this as an opportunity, fertile ground to deviate from the common conceptions of Nero and the Emperors who followed him.
How did you conduct your research while you were writing? How much do you think your research coloured your prose?
Basically, I just read a lot. I started with the big picture historical events before turning to the minutia of day-to-day life. In hindsight, it took me far too long to get to the original sources, which I think are the best way to get a sense of the time period. As for how my research coloured my prose, I could drone on for hours about this. Essentially, I wanted the book to sound and feel believable, but in a way that didn’t alienate readers.
Still on the subject of research, how did you decide what to leave out?
The best barometer was to read something to my wife and if her eyes rolled I’d cut it. A lot of research didn’t make it in. But you can’t put everything in or it can slow the story, ring false, or sound like textbook rather than a novel.
Could you give us a brief run-down of what happened between finishing the course and getting the book deal?
I finished the course in April 2015. I had positive feedback from a few of the Curtis Brown agents, but I was still only about half way through my first draft. I decided I’d better do something drastic or it would be a very long time until I finished. So I took a two month leave of absence from my job. I finished the manuscript during that time, and then edited it for several months after that. In late November 2015 I sent it off to agents. I was very fortunate to get an offer from, and ultimately sign with, Sam Copeland of Rogers, Coleridge & White. With Sam’s help, I edited the book and then it went off to publishers in February 2016. We accepted Bonnier’s offer a few weeks later.
What advice would you give to writers working on their first novels?
Part of me thinks this question is like asking someone who has won the lottery what their secret was. Maybe the best advice I can give is to put yourself in the best position you can to win the lottery: finish your book and make it as good as you can. The course accelerated this process, which ultimately helped me get an agent and a deal. It is hard to say what would have happened if I didn’t do the course. Maybe I would have finished the book, found an agent and got a deal. Maybe not. But I am quite sure that, if not for the course, I’d still be about three quarters of the way through the first draft and have no idea if it was any good or not.
The Deposed will be published by Bonnier in Spring 2017.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.